This Drought has Clout

You guys. It has been SO hot and SO dry this summer. It’s astronomically ridiculous. It’s all anyone can talk about around here, and not just the farmers. It started with us though, a curmudgeonly lot griping about the unrelenting heat while the sun sucked the moisture from our overworked bodies. Our office-dwelling friends and families loved the early summer; for once the sun was still shining happily for them when their weekends rolled around. Things have changed though. Everyone is running around trying to find plug-in air conditioner units. People are complaining. People are wilting. This is the Pacific Northwest after all, and we’re not cut out for this.

That same relentless sun that has us moping our foreheads has also sucked what little moisture remained in the land. With record low levels of rainfall this spring, our pastures are suffering and our vegetable farming friends are almost at crisis mode. Irrigation is being run non-stop, and drip lines are being moved around their crops all day long. Alice, one of the vegetable growers from One Leaf Farm who shares land with us, just told me their recent harvests are 50% less than normal due to loss. The lack of moisture has weakened the plants which then succumb to pest and weed pressure more readily. On the animal front we are constantly checking water levels, making mud wallows for pigs, and helplessly watching our chicks pant in the brooder. Today we are forecasted to reach 90 degrees, and around here that is just too damn hot.

I know I don’t live in California anymore, and that’s where the “real drought” is happening, but for some reason this feels different. I was raised in Arizona and California, so water conservation and drought have always been a part of life. I think this is the first time that my life has so directly revolved around the weather so I’m more aware of the change, perhaps. Also the spectrum is greater: we’re used to cold wet springs followed by short dry summers. Seasons are a real thing here, unlike in my previous home states, so this prolonged summer is a crazy outlier. For a good read and interviews with local vegetable growers about the drought, click here. Of course compared to California, we are lucky. We still have a pond we can pull water from, and our well hasn’t dried up. These things may change though, as they are predicting an El Niño year for the west coast. In California that means drenching rains. In the Northwest it means little rain or snow to replenish our rivers and reservoirs. Add to that the recent terrifyingly brilliant New Yorker article about how we’re doomed to suffer a catastrophic earthquake within the next fifty years…and I’m thinking maybe I’ll go join my sister in Maine! Just kidding. Kinda.

Other than the crazy weather, we’ve been grinding away trying to promote and sell our meat. We’ve been attending a couple farmers markets, and the chickens are a little slower to sell than I expected. Ditto on the restaurant front. We’ve given sample chickens to several reputable farm-to-table restaurants in Seattle, but so far it seems our chickens are a bit large for most chefs. Customers at the market are often unprepared to take home a whole frozen chicken. But I am having many new interested people join my mailing list, and am doing a lot of educating about our food system and why we do what we do the way we do it. Building a business and a presence takes time; in the meantime I’m doing a lot of networking and trying to find creative new ways to get our name out there!

Over the past couple months we’ve made friends with a wonderful photographer named Tom Marks who is based out of Seattle. He has come to the farm several times to shoot us for his portfolio, and the attached photos for this blog are from those trips. They give a good snapshot of what our daily grind looks like, and he has a wonderful eye. Please keep in mind these are taken a while ago. While I may look nice and chilly in a sweater and scarf, rest assured I’m melting in my chair, occasionally peeling my sticky arms off the table to wipe off the sweat. Cheers!

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The Ides of March (har har)

Whoa! It’s almost April and I haven’t written in since late February. Time sure does fly when you haven’t filed your taxes! This spring has been exceptionally mild. We’ve had several days in the 60s and 70s, with ample sunshine. It’s gotten to the point where if it rains for more than a day I catch myself thinking “What’s with this crazy weather?!” which of course, up here in Washington state is downright silly. I really feel for my family back east who are suffering from such a miserable, protracted winter. I also ache for my family and friends in California who are in the midst of a horrible drought. I’m sure we’ll be paying for this wonderful weather in one form or another, but at the moment all I can do is be grateful.

Obviously a lot has happened in the past couple months, including the official switch from growing vegetables alongside meat, to focusing solely on ethically raised meat and eggs. In order to help spread the word and grow our business, I spent a good chunk of time building a new website for our farm. Please check it out and let me know what you think (and consider supporting us by purchasing our meat if you’re local)! Link: www.brightide acres.com.

This switch has been challenging in several ways. First and foremost is the loss of early season capital. With our vegetable CSA, much of the money for the produce was collected before the season even began, which gave us a good amount of money we could then use to buy our baby chicks, pigs, feed, and other supplies. This year of course we don’t have that capital, and we’re also doubling and tripling our animal numbers so it’s a bit of a dilemma. We are working on some alternative loan options, so if anyone out there in the world reading this wants to help a small farm get a foothold, I’d love to hear from you!

In the meantime Andrew and I have both been busy both on the farm and off. In order to make ends meet we’ve found a few part-time jobs can really help. I’m still washing dishes and doing some catering assistance for some pals who work at a winery, and have added a day of vegetable packing for another farm-fresh operation nearby. Andrew has started pouring concrete two days a week, which is a skill he has honed since high school. We consider ourselves fortunate that we found work easily and that we can be choosy about how we spend our time working for others; most people don’t have that luxury and for that we are grateful.

One of our biggest areas of growth this year is in our pastured chicken husbandry. We are going from raising 600 broilers last year to 1,200 this year, and in order to do that we are hoping to utilize a new WSDA inspected mobile slaughter unit. This slaughter unit would come to the farm and slaughter, air-cool, and vacuum seal our birds. Since it is inspected by the state, we would then be free to freeze the birds and bring them to farmers’ markets, sell to restaurants, or any other way we see fit. This is only possible if electricity becomes a reality at the farm. Eric, the landowner, has been working on this for months, but of course government red tape is making progress slow. We have our fingers crossed, bound, and doubled over backwards for the approval, but only time well tell and we’re furiously working on a plan B just in case.

Since we aren’t growing veggies this year, a lot of acreage that we were using is now available, and a new group of farmers has come in to lease the land. Rand and Alice are two very nice, intelligent, and experienced women farmers, and we’ve enjoyed getting to know them as they start working the soil. It’s truly impressive to watch farmers who were originally trained on bigger, more professional farms. Comparing their efficiency to how we scrambled around these last couple seasons has cemented my confidence in our decision. We certainly loved growing vegetables and we did pretty well for ourselves, but now that we’re on the other side looking back I can see we made the right choice for us. In a few days Rand and Alice’s interns start arriving, and I’m looking forward to meeting some more like-minded people and making new friendships.

I guess I should mention the baby animals! We’ve had 28 baby goats born at the farm in the past month or so. We’ve also had 11 lambs born. Out of those 11 lambs, only two are female! That’s nice because the males will be raised for meat, although it makes growing our future flock more difficult. Either way at this point all I can say is baby animals are adorable, hilarious, and so much fun to be around. And really what more can you ask of life than to be nibbled on by such sweet little faces?

Escaping Winter: Part 2

Spring seems to be arriving early at the farm. Today I was walking around in a t-shirt while the low winter sun warmed my face. The pregnant sheep and goats are close to having their babies, and we’re scrambling to get ready for the season ahead. I have more of our winter get-away to write about, but if you’re dying for some farm-related news check this out: http://us9.campaign-archive1.com/?u=76509a2c1f99173c27cbcc178&id=d67b98781a

I also promise to post baby animal photos as soon as they arrive, so be sure to check out our facebook page as well: www.facebook.com/brightideacres

And now…back to the Southwest!

After leaving Salt Lake City, Andrew and I spent an uneventful night in Moab, Utah, one of our favorite spots from our 2012 road trip. Unfortunately in the winter Moab is like a ghost town, and most of the restaurants and shops are closed for the season. In light of this, we left early the next morning and headed down into Arizona. We debated about whether or not to hit the Four Corners region, but decided instead to drive through Monument Valley, which is in the Navajo Nation Reservation. We were fortunate enough to drive through this amazing landscape after a recent dusting of snow. The roads were clear and safe, but the red rocks that jut out of the ground like alien formations on Mars were sprinkled with white powder. The contrast of colors made for an unforgettable experience, especially when the semi-wild horses wandered past. We listened to the local Navajo radio station as we drove through, and felt our souls vibrate in tune with the native chanters as we marveled at the magnificent terrain.

That night we stayed in the Canyon de Chelle at a Navajo run campground. It was a frigid night and the campground water tank was frozen solid, so we melted snow to make some pasta and curled up in our tent early. I was thankful for the extra heft and warmth our new Pendleton blanket provided! The next morning we drove into the Canyon to take a look at some of the sights. This is a holy place to the Navajo people, and I was excited to notice some tokens of offering that had been left at the base of Spider Rock. I am thankful to Andrew for always packing every possible item we may need on our trips; were it not for the binoculars I would have missed this small, reverent detail. Our next destination was the Petrified Forest National Park, a place I had visited as a child. Unfortunately after the beauty of Monument Valley, the Painted Desert fell a little short. Many of the petrified logs once held glimmering crystals, but rude tourists and other scallywags have dislodged and stolen the crystals over the years, which also added to our sense of disappointment.

Happily for us our next stop was Tucson, where plenty of joy and amusement awaited. We were stoked to meet up with my sister Meghan, her husband Jonathan, and their baby Juniper, and spend some quality time with my grandmother as well. Tucson activities included swimming in a lovely heated pool (Jonathan’s all-time favorite pastime, and Juniper’s first swim!), visiting Biosphere 2 out in the desert, hiking in Sabino Canyon, enjoying delicious food and drink (including the various meats and eggs we hauled down with us!), and taking a family portrait at JC Penney for Grandma. One of the days we went to lunch in downtown Tucson at one of our favorite places, The Blue Willow. We invited our old nanny Kaye, who took care of Meghan and me from infancy through childhood while our parents worked during the day. Kaye was 90, and her health had rapidly declined in the year since I’d seen her last. I’m so grateful we were able to spend that lovely afternoon with her, as it would turn out to be our last. Kaye passed away last week at home with her family. If only I can be so lucky as Kaye, to live a long, happy, joy-filled life and pass away in my home surrounded by love. She was like a grandmother to me, and I will never forget the warmth and tender care I received from this wonderful woman.

We spent close to a week in Tucson, and were itching for some rock climbing so Andrew and I headed north to Queens Creek Canyon up near Phoenix. The desert landscape here was gorgeous, and Andrew and I hiked through a canyon, past a little pond where we waited out a rain shower under the shelter of a small mesquite tree, and came out on top of a cliff. We strapped on our gear and rappelled down a route known as Geronimo. This exposed cliff was nerve-wracking for me since I haven’t done much outdoor climbing in the past few years, but I was proud of myself. Once we rappelled down we had to climb back up (of course!), and I managed to do it without help from Andrew since he was ahead of me and couldn’t do much but holler encouragement from above. As we hiked back down to our truck we were treated with a gorgeous rainbow, and we deeply inhaled that damp, musky, invigorating scent that only rainfall in a desert can produce. That night we made friends with our camp neighbors and enjoyed some beer and company around a roaring fire.

While we would have loved another day or two in Queens Creek, we had Joshua Tree on our minds. We hightailed it through Arizona (thanking our luck that gas prices had dropped to $1.84/gallon outside Phoenix!), and zoomed into Joshua Tree in the evening. Joshua Tree is a very special place for us: we met there, were married there, and I even have a Joshua tree tattooed on my ribcage, so we were excited to spend some time in one of our favorite spots. We wound up sharing a campsite with a young couple from Montana. Sam and Ian were kindred spirits, and we had a good time sharing meals, laughs, and campfires with them. We even took them to the Chasm of Doom one night, which is a fun cave scramble you do in the dark (assuming you have a knowledgeable guide like Andrew!). Unfortunately for me my fickle stomach wasn’t on board with this adventure, so I spent most of that time lying on a picnic table in the dark alternately listening to their hoots and hollers as they wormed their way through the cave and keeping an eye out for nosy coyotes.

After a couple days of rock climbing, lounging, and general merriment, we told Joshua Tree “goodbye for now”, and headed into Desert Hot Springs for a few hours’ soak in a natural hot springs pool. The resort we went to obviously had its heyday in the 1980s, and we enjoyed the cheesy music, cheap prices, and delicious mai tais as the desert dust rinsed away. That night we spent at Andrew’s grandparents’ house in San Clemente. Andrew’s grandmother always prepares for his visit by baking a fresh batch of his favorite chocolate chip cookies, and we always have a warm comfy bed on standby. We had a nice breakfast the next morning and polished off the last of our traveling bacon, and then headed through the LA madness towards his other grandparents’ home. We stopped at my favorite LA spot: Scoops Ice Cream for a delicious treat, (their flavors are incredible and they have the BEST soy ice cream options I’ve ever seen!), and the stress from LA traffic vanished at that first bite. Once we made it to Andrew’s grandparents’ house we sat and chatted with them for a while about life, death, grief, and other important topics before hitting the road yet again.

Our next couple days were full of driving, though we were lucky enough to have the time and good weather to drive up the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. We stopped for a night in Mammoth and saw my pal Jill, and stopped for a couple hours in Reno to catch up with some of Andrew’s old friends from college. Finally we made it to Eugene, Oregon where we spent the night with my brother and sister-in-law (and their menagerie of dogs), and before we knew it we were back on the farm, frantically planning for the season ahead. One month later and we’re still at it, working on spreadsheets, business plans, and figuring out how we can afford to buy the animal feed we’ll need to keep 1,200 broiler chickens, 120 laying hens, 40 pigs, and 100 turkeys alive and healthy. Thankfully the goats and sheep eat grass, but there’s a lot of work involved with those guys too, so it’s bound to be a busy season for us again. After this nice relaxing winter I think we’re ready for the challenge!

Escaping Winter: Part 1

The start of January and a new year signaled that it was time for us to continue our new tradition of escaping the Washington winter for a spell. After last year’s grand adventure in Australia, we decided to stay stateside this year and planned a road trip that would have us in Tucson to visit my grandmother at the same time as my sister, her husband, and their baby.

Our trip began with real winter. While we were lucky enough to avoid snowfall the entire time we were on the road, the temperatures in the first few nights were well below freezing. While we had great camping gear with us, including a propane heater and some amazing vintage Eddie Bauer down sleeping bags that Andrew’s parents let us borrow, I vetoed camping until we reached a more amenable clime.

Our first destination was Pendleton, a small city in eastern Oregon that is known for the Pendleton Woolen Mill. The drive east over the Cascade Mountains was lovely and uneventful, and after a nice relaxing evening in a warm motel room we hit the Pendleton Woolen Mill to check it out. Unfortunately for us they were not giving tours that day, but we had a great time checking out their wares in the factory outlet store and of course I wasn’t about to walk out of there without a Pendleton blanket!

Next we drove southeast into Idaho. On our way into Idaho as we drove down out of a mountain pass, we saw a man jogging and pulling a kind of rickshaw behind him. Rather than loading the rickshaw with people, he had what I assume to be his life’s possessions piled up. It appeared as if this man was adventuring around the state (or country?) on his own two feet. It was an inspiring sight, but the frigid temperatures made me grateful for the Tacoma’s blasting heater!

Driving through Idaho was fun, what with speed limits of 80 MPH and pronghorn antelopes bouncing along the highway. We decided to make a stop at a random little town to let the dog out, and we found a nice spot overlooking a river. As we walked around and let Zephyr roam, a lady in a small white car pulled up with her dog and got out. She was dressed in a t-shirt and sandals, which contrasted ridiculously with my Nanook of the North style parka. The temperature was below freezing, but it quickly became apparent that locals are not fazed by such weather. This woman introduced herself as Hedayat, and she originally hails from Turkey. Hedayat was incredibly sweet, and obviously lonely. She said it was the one-year anniversary of her husband’s death and that she has no other family, and proceeded to break into tears. I gave Hedayat a long hug, and we started talking about our dogs, which seemed to brighten her mood a little. I hope all the Hedayats out there can bask in the unconditional love of a pet, and find occasional comfort in the embrace of a stranger.

That night we stayed in Twin Falls. It’s a small city with a beautiful waterfall, and a bridge that is known as the only one you can legally BASE jump off year-round. We were hopeful there’d be some jumpers, but it was cold and mid-week and no jumpers were to be found. After another night in a motel we took Zephyr on a little hike to see Shoshone Falls. The area was covered it snow, and it was a fun adventure for Zephyr who absolutely loves to romp and roll in snow and lick icicles. The falls were gorgeous, although we quickly learned that they are much grander in the spring once the snowmelt joins the rush.

Back on the road, we headed for Salt Lake City. I’ve been a few times, but this was to be Andrew’s first visit. I am always so amazed at how clean and tidy downtown SLC is, especially when I compare it to other major cities I’ve been in. In my travels I’d say it’s second only to Hong Kong, a city where a stranger picked up a piece of candy that fell out of Andrew’s mouth and put it in her pocket for future disposal! In SLC we stayed at the fancy (for us) Hotel Monaco, a dog-friendly boutique hotel. We were even treated to a happy hour with free wine, hot toddies, and guacamole. That night we ate a delicious dinner at the Copper Onion, and then I luxuriated in the hotel bathtub, marveling once again at how easily hot water comes out of the tap in modern civilization!

The next morning we awoke early to take in a show of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The show is broadcast live on radio, and is the oldest continuous radio broadcast in the country with a start date it 1929. It was an interesting experience, and I can easily appreciate how talented and composed the 360 members are, although the style of music is much more subdued than I would normally seek out. When it comes to religious music, give me a Southern Baptist style gospel choir any day! But then again, Salt Lake City wouldn’t be Salt Lake City without the heavy influence of the Mormon Church. Walking around the Temple Square is a bit like being at Disneyland, especially in the winter. They had an almost life-sized nativity scene, complete with camels and donkeys. Missionaries stand at every corner, ready to answer your questions and, of course, ask their own: “are you familiar with the book of Mormon?” I had to cram my tongue in my cheek to avoid making jokes about the Broadway musical we saw earlier in the year, and we politely excused ourselves whenever the conversation tilted towards religion.

Our next destination in Utah was Moab, and as we headed southeast through the mountains we passed people participating in various winter sports. The ice-covered lakes were absolutely covered with little huts and people ice fishing, which is something I’ve always wanted to try. But I was much more impressed with the people who were kite boarding in the snow! This was a genius combination of snowboarding and kite boarding, which I’ve only before seen on open water. It looked like a complete blast, and I think I’ll add that to my list of crazy things I’d like to try someday. I guess I should get a little better at regular snowboarding before I get too carried away (literally)!

Stay tuned…in my next post we continue the adventure down into Arizona!

Lard in the Larder & Meat on the Mind

A couple of weeks ago the first over-wintering trumpeter swans began flying overhead in small groups of four or five. Their ethereal trumpeting, along with a few storms and the quickly dipping mercury, are a sure sign that Old Man Winter is slowly wrapping his gnarled hands around the farm. As I sit here typing the wind is gusting wildly, rocking the tiny house on its tractor-trailer foundation. While Andrew and our part time farm hand William run around taking apart now-empty animal enclosures and gathering loose items that are blowing about, I sit here in the warm house with the excuse of fire-tender; we have many pounds of hog lard to render and keeping the fire alight is a very important task!

Speaking of hogs, all eighteen of our wonderful pig friends have been slaughtered over the past few weeks. The hogs are a huge part of our farm and bring a lot of character, so when they are first gone I feel their absence acutely. Someday soon we would like to breed our own hogs, and at that point we would have permanent pig residents to amuse us. For now the cycle of pig life on the farm is relatively short, but ends in a year’s supply of healthy, delicious pork. Many of our customers do not claim the leaf fat from their pigs once at the butcher, and so Andrew and I are happily collecting the leftovers for our own use and for gifts. Hog lard is making a comeback people: mark my words!

Today also marks the first goat slaughter of the season. Andrew performed this task himself, and I am so proud of how efficiently and humanely he accomplished this. This man I married never ceases to amaze me. He continues to learn new skills every day, and is constantly pushing himself to be better. If I only had half the drive he has we could conquer the world! Fortunately we’re happy just plodding along on our fertile little patch of borrowed land in this gorgeous valley. Who needs the world when you have everything you need just steps away from your front door?

As winter approaches we are trying to get things ready, doing what we can to prepare for the cold. We need to cut more hardwood for heat, and insulate the pipes coming out of the new well. We need to dig up and store our carrots, beets, and dahlia tubers in sawdust to protect them from freezing. On the back burner are plans to filter our water system and get the hot water heater back up and running. In the meantime we’re still hauling in our drinking water and taking showers at the neighbor’s. I started washing dishes part time at a nearby winery (the chefs were CSA members this season and are so fun to work with!), and I’ve gotten into the habit of brining my own dirty dishes with me. Having copious amounts of hot running water right out of the tap is a luxury I am still struggling to get used to.

In my last post I mentioned I was going on vacation to visit my sister and her new baby, along with some other family members. We had a great time in beautiful Autumnal Maine, enjoying the newest addition to the family and eating our way around Portland. Little Juniper is adorable, a perfect mash-up between my twin and her husband. It was surreal and amazing to watch the girl I grew up with mothering her child. I wish we lived closer so that I could watch Juniper grow, but photos and video chats will have to do for now. Despite kind of living as if we’re still in the 19th century, Andrew and I suffer that great dilemma most modern American families face: dispersion. We’d love to have everyone all living together on one big bustling farm, but for now we’re thankful for the technology that allows us to stay connected.

Typically wintertime on the farm is spent planning and plotting our next moves. Things are going to be a little bit different for us next year, and we have a lot of work to do in order to get ready. Our passions lie in humane animal husbandry, and we’re looking forward to making that our main mission at Bright Ide Acres. While vegetables will always be a part of our own homestead, the availability of healthy, organically grown produce is widespread in this part of the world. Ethically raised meats are harder to find, and the demand for this niche product is increasing. With the rise in consumer awareness about the factory meat industry and how much more nutritious and environmentally friendly pastured meats are, we feel there is a good marketplace for us.

One big challenge for selling meat products is that the regulations required for selling cuts are proving prohibitive for us. I am adamant about having animals slaughtered on the farm rather than subjecting them to stressful transport and slaughterhouse conditions. Right now all of the large animals that are slaughtered for customers are done so under a custom arrangement, which is great for people who have the freezer space to take a half hog or quarter cow. Our mobile butchers are not USDA certified, which means we can’t take back the meat and resell it as bacon or pork chops at farmers markets or to restaurants. While some neighboring counties have USDA certified mobile slaughter units, our county currently does not.

Unfortunately many potential customers in Seattle and surrounding areas, (who have both the desire to support ethical meat and the means to do so), don’t have big freezers in their apartments and townhouses. Our goal is to find a way to create a meat CSA or cooperative whereby we can provide monthly (or so) boxes with various cuts of different animals, eggs, and honey. Another difficulty will lie in advanced funding, since most of the revenue made from animal products don’t come until after slaughter, which is later in the season. I have been mulling the idea of a Kickstarter campaign or something similar, since I know a lot of you might be interested in supporting us in our endeavors. Please let me know if a comment if you have any ideas or suggestions for farm fund-raising!

I hear some sizzling from the lard pot, so it’s time to go stoke the fire and add more fat. I hope all of you across the country stay warm during the brutal week that’s predicted ahead. If you’re feeling down about the weather I can recommend some homegrown beans simmered in a dollop of trotter gear, (gelatinous pork stock made from pig’s feet!), to keep those winter blues in check. There’s really nothing better than a steaming mug of homemade chili on a cold blustery day!